U.S. health secretary visits Mayo's Biobank

U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell emphasized the importance of investing in precision medicine and health care research during a visit Friday to the Mayo Clinic Biobank.

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Stephen Thibodeau, left, consultant in laboratory medicine and pathology at Mayo Clinic, gives a tour to U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell, middle, and Sen. Amy Klobuchar on Friday, Oct. 16, 2015, at the Mayo Clinic Biobank in Rochester.
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U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell emphasized the importance of investing in precision medicine and health care research during a visit Friday to the Mayo Clinic Biobank.

Burwell told reporters the work being done at Mayo Clinic to personalize medicine is critical for the future of health care. That type of medicine involves analyzing a patient's genes to help determine the best medical treatments for that individual. The Biobank has 50,000 samples from volunteers that researchers can tap into to help advance precision medicine.

"It will reduce the cost of trials. It will increase the speed with which we can get results and cures," Burwell said.

This was the health secretary's first visit to the Mayo Clinic. During her stop, she touted the president's precision medicine initiative, which calls for an additional $215 million in funding. She said she is hopeful that Congress will set aside funding for the program.

Joining Burwell on the tour were Mayo Clinic President and CEO Dr. John Noseworthy and U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar. Noseworthy said Mayo Clinic wholeheartedly backs the president's precision medicine initiative.


"Precision medicine is the future of health care and will define the next level of medical advancement," he said.

Klobuchar said it's also critical the U.S. continues to invest in this type of cutting-edge research. She is co-sponsoring the America Cures Act, which boosts investment in the National Institutes by Health by 5 percent per year. A similar bill has already passed the U.S. House. The NIH funds research at Mayo Clinic and other institutions via grants, and this bill would reverse recent cutbacks in funding.

Looming over health care funding is the potential for a government shutdown. Congress has until Dec. 11 to pass a new federal budget. Raising the uncertainty is the turmoil among House Republicans over who should be the next speaker. The lead candidate, Senate Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, dropped out of the running after being unable to get the necessary votes. Speaker John Boehner has said he will continue in the post for the time being.

Klobuchar said the 2013 government shutdown hit the National Institutes of Health hard.

"In the last shutdown, 70 percent of the NIH staff was furloughed. Patients slated to start in clinical trials couldn't," she said.

Klobuchar and Burwell said it's also critical that Congress boost funding for the NIH instead of allowing automatic budget cuts known as sequestration to kick in. If that happens, Burwell said, "NIH funding will be at some of its lowest levels in a decade."

Klobuchar said the work being done at Mayo Clinic is critical to help improve treatment and find future cures. And while the Mayo Clinic Biobank employees wear lab coats instead of capes, she said they are nonetheless superheroes.

"They are superheroes to every single person that walks in the doors of this clinic," Klobuchar said. "And they are superheroes to people that they don't even know who haven't even been treated at this clinic because of the possible benefits of this research."

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